2022 Look Ahead: Saudi Arabia’s booming entertainment sector is just getting started

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Updated 01 January 2022

2022 Look Ahead: Saudi Arabia’s booming entertainment sector is just getting started

  • Many Saudis are experiencing home-grown arts, culture and sporting events for the first time ever 
  • After the delays and closures of the pandemic, the entertainment calendar is packed once more 

RIYADH: For around 30 years, entertainment venues, from cinemas to concert halls, were bolted shut across Saudi Arabia, depriving citizens and visitors of outlets to enjoy cultural, sporting and artistic activities in public 

All that began to change in 2016 with the establishment of the General Entertainment Authority as part of the Kingdom’s wide-ranging social and economic reform agenda, Vision 2030.

Five years on, the thirst for entertainment in Saudi Arabia is plain to see. In the space of just two months, up to 8 million people have taken part in Riyadh Season 2021 — a cultural extravaganza that was unheard of just half a decade ago.




Boys wave national flags during celebrations in Riyadh marking Saudi Arabia's National Day on Sept. 23, 2020. (AFP)

The General Entertainment Authority was established to help drive ahead the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, allowing it to become a global leader in the creative, leisure, tourism and hi-tech industries.

Now, Saudi citizens and international visitors, no matter their level of income, can enjoy a whole host of entertainment options previously denied to them, improving their quality of life and the Kingdom’s appeal as a work and investment destination.




Entrepreneurs offer camel rides in AlUla. (AN file photo)

Within just five years, the GEA has issued 2,189 licenses and 1,809 permits allowing more than 2,500 companies to launch home-grown entertainment ventures. The sector has already created more than $1 billion in profits and attracted over 75 million visitors.

Although Saudi Arabia’s entertainment revolution suffered setbacks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with events suspended, venues closed, and international travel barred for several months, the cultural calendar returned with a bang in 2021. Much is still to come.




Saudi fans mob a wrestling star during a WWE event in Jeddah. (Supplied)

For a whole generation of young Saudis, this will be another year of firsts.

Until the late 1980s, Saudi cities enjoyed a flourishing artistic movement that offered the public a wide variety of entertainment options. However, this came to an end in the early 1990s.




Saudi fans attend the "MDL Beast Fest", an electronic music festival, held in Banban on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh on Dec. 19, 2019. (AFP file)

For a time, just two music festivals took place per year — one at the Muftaha Theater in Abha, and another at Jeddah’s Summer Concerts — until these too were stopped. The last open concert in Riyadh took place in 1992 during Al-Janadriyah festival.

FASTFACTS

2016 General Entertainment Authority established.

2017 First public concerts in nearly three decades.

2018 35-year ban on public cinemas finally lifted.

2018 Kingdom’s first ever Diriyah E-Prix.

2019 Launch of Saudi Seasons initiative.

The silence was broken in March 2017 with the Kingdom’s first public concert in nearly three decades. Although attendance was limited to men only, tickets for the performance by Saudi artists Mohammed Abdu and Rashid Al-Majed sold out immediately.




The Cairo Opera House's National Arab Music Ensemble (AME) perform at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh on April 25, 2018. (AFP)

Later that year, Saudi Arabia hosted its first public performance by a female artist. Lebanese singer Heba Tawaji performed on stage at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh to an exclusively female audience of 3,000.

During the same year, Greek composer and pianist Yanni performed in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. In a tweet before his arrival in Saudi Arabia, he said: “We are going to be experiencing history in the making and I would not miss it for anything in the world! First stop Jeddah! ...Yanni.”




Participants at work during the Formula E race in Diriyah, Riyadh. (AFP)

The following year saw the launch of Ad Diriyah concerts, with several performances held on the sidelines of the Kingdom’s biggest event — the Formula E race in Diriyah — including an unforgettable show by French DJ David Guetta.

“That concert was magical. I loved every second of it,” music fan Eithar Alshadukhi told Arab News at the time. “David Guetta’s songs are amazing, but when he created a special piece for Saudi Arabia, it blew me away.”




Mariah Carey performing in Jeddah in 2019. (AN file photo)

In 2019, American singer-songwriter Mariah Carey performed in Jeddah, making her the highest-profile international artist to perform in the Kingdom since the easing of restrictions on entertainment.

During the same year, K-Pop boy band BTS became the first foreign artists to play a solo stadium show in Saudi Arabia before an audience of over 60,000 at the King Fahd International Stadium.




Music concerts blossomed in Saudi Arabia since 2016. (Supplied)

Music concerts are not the only field of entertainment that has blossomed in Saudi Arabia since 2016. Intensely proud of its heritage and natural beauty, the Kingdom has invested heavily in promoting leisure and tourism activities in its coastal, mountain and desert regions.

In the process, Saudi Arabia has broken several Guinness World Records, including a 2020 record for the largest hot air balloon glow show over the ancient city of AlUla, with 100 balloons spread across 3 km of sky.




Hot air balloon festival in the ancient city of AlUla. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Season 2021 also received two Guinness World Record certificates for “Avalanche.” With 24 lanes reaching a record height of more than 22 meters, it was recognized as both the world’s tallest fun slide and the one with the most lanes.

INNUMBERS

2,500 Companies licensed by General Entertainment Authority.

$1bn Saudi entertainment industry profits over past 5 years.

75m Visitors to recent Saudi-hosted events and activities.

Another area of entertainment that has boomed over the past five years is the film industry. In 2018, the 35-year ban on public cinemas was finally lifted, spurring the growth of a domestic market and the opening of “Movi” — the first nationally owned and operated cinema in Saudi Arabia — first in Jeddah then throughout the Kingdom.




The lifting in 2018 of a 35-year ban on public cinemas has spurred the growth of a domestic market and the opening of “Movi”. (Supplied)

In 2019, the Red Sea International Film Festival was launched, bringing together Saudi and international filmmakers, actors, and industry professionals to celebrate cinema and the world’s greatest on-screen talent.

The festival’s ambitious mandate is to develop and promote the film industry in Saudi Arabia, discover raw regional talent, and support a new wave of cinema worldwide.




The opening of the Kingdom's entertainment industry has spurred interest in filmmaking and acting. (File photo)

To preserve and promote Saudi Arabia’s rich and unique culture, while also boosting the domestic and international tourism market, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage launched the Saudi Seasons initiative in 2019 to high acclaim.

Festivals have taken place in Riyadh, Jeddah, Eastern Province, Taif, AlUla, Ad Diriyah, and elsewhere, celebrating the Kingdom’s diverse local crafts and traditions, while also creating jobs for young Saudis.




Hundreds of resorts have sprung up across Saudi Arabia since the Kingdom opened its tourism industry a few years back. (SPA)

Tourism is one area Saudi Arabia is especially eager to promote with the launch of its Saudi e-visa in 2019. The Kingdom expects to have hosted 100 million tourists by 2030, drawn by a mixture of new luxury resorts on its coastline, educational outings among its spectacular ancient ruins, and adventure activities in its vast deserts and lush mountains.

So much has already been achieved in the Kingdom’s leisure and entertainment industries since reforms began just five years ago. No doubt 2022 will be another year of firsts on the road to 2030.


All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit

Updated 11 August 2022

All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit

  • From October, every Saudi and non-Saudi content creator who earns revenue on social media must first apply for an official permit
  • For a fee of SR15,000 (roughly $4,000), content creators will receive a permit lasting three years, allowing them to work with private entities

LONDON: As more Saudis connect through their social media profiles and even begin to profit from these platforms, the Kingdom has launched a new licensing system to properly monitor the influencer industry.

From early October, every Saudi and non-Saudi content creator in the Kingdom who earns revenue through advertising on social media must first apply for an official permit from the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM).

For a fee of SR15,000 (roughly $4,000), content creators will receive a permit lasting three years, during which time they can work with as many private entities as they wish and promote any product or service, as long as it does not violate the Kingdom’s laws or values.
 

The incoming influencer license “is not a permit to censor or to block,” Esra Assery, CEO at GCAM, told Arab News. “It’s more of a permit to enable the maturity of the sector. We want to help those individuals grow, but grow in a professional way so they can make a career out of (social media revenue).”

The new regulations are being touted as legal protections, both for influencers and businesses wishing to advertise with them, so that rates and contractual obligations are standardized across the industry.

“The market is so unregulated,” said Assery. “We’re not against influencers or those individuals. Actually, we want to enable them. If you check out the new bylaw, it protects them also, because the bylaw regulates their relationship with the advertisers.”
 

Esra Assery, CEO at Saudi Arabia's General Commission for Audiovisual Media. (Supplied)

Currently, anyone in Saudi Arabia is able to advertise on social media and earn money from deals with private entities — with payments per post climbing into the thousands of riyals, depending on the number of followers an influencer can reach.

Concern has been expressed that introducing permits and regulations will undermine how much money influencers can make and might even constitute censorship. However, GCAM insists the permits are designed to ensure transparency between influencers and their clients.

Saudi influencers, whether based in the Kingdom or abroad, must apply for the permit if they wish to work with a brand — local or international. However, non-Saudi residents in the country must follow a different track.

After applying to the Ministry of Investment for a permit to work in the country, they can then apply for an influencer permit through GCAM. However, non-Saudi residents must be represented by specific advertising agencies.

“While some influencers may focus on the short-term loss of paying the license fee, there is a huge benefit to licensing coming in as it legitimizes the sector on a national level,” Jamal Al-Mawed, founder and managing director of Gambit Communications, told Arab News.

“This is crucial in the influencer industry as it has been a bit of a wild west for marketing in the past, with no clear benchmarking for rates or contracts.”

Al-Mawed said that the new measures can protect brands that are susceptible to fraud “when they pay huge budgets to influencers who are buying fake followers and fake engagements. This creates a vicious circle, as hard-working content creators are undermined by the bad apples.”

Although the new license is unlikely to solve every issue overnight, “it does create a foundation for more professionalism and accountability,” Al-Mawed added.

Under new rules, non-Saudi residents and visitors to the Kingdom are prohibited from posting ads on social media without a license. (Shutterstock image)

In June, non-Saudi residents and visitors to the Kingdom were prohibited from posting ads on social media without a license. Those who ignore the ruling face a possible five-year prison sentence and fines of up to SR5 million.

GCAM announced the ban after finding “violations by numerous non-Saudi advertisers, both residents and visitors, on social media platforms.”

“After checking their data, it was found that they had committed systemic violations, including lack of commercial registrations and legal licenses, and they are not working under any commercial entity or foreign investment license,” the commission said at the time.

Now, with a regulated license, such violations will be easier to monitor and the sector will be better regulated to ensure full transparency.
 

Businesses such as bakeries or hair salons that hold social media accounts and advertise their own products or services are not covered by the prohibition. (Shutterstock image)

Although Saudi influencers will be able to hold full-time jobs while earning on the side through promotional campaigns on their social media profiles, the law states that non-Saudis can work only in one specific role while residing in the Kingdom.

However, the system does not apply to businesses and entities — such as bakeries or hair salons — that hold social media accounts and advertise their own products or services on these platforms. Only individuals are affected by the new law.

There are certain exceptions, however, such as individuals who have been invited to the country by a ministry or government entity in order to perform, including musicians and entertainers.

With the rise of social media over the past decade, content creators and so-called influencers with thousands of followers on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and other platforms have drawn audiences away from traditional outlets, such as television, newspapers and magazines, to new and largely unregulated media.
 

Sensing the shift in content consumption, advertisers have followed the herd. Crystal-blue waters caressing white, sandy beaches at luxury resorts and scrumptious feasts at the finest restaurants are now commonplace on influencer profiles as businesses rush to take advantage of more “natural-feeling” product placement.

However, regulators have struggled to keep up with this rapid transformation, leaving the process open to legal disputes, exploitation and abuse. That is why authorities elsewhere in the world have also been exploring influencer permits.

Dubai, widely seen as the influencer hub of the Middle East, is among them.

In 2018, the UAE’s National Media Council launched a new electronic media regulation system, which required social media influencers to obtain a license to operate in the country.

The cost of the annual license is 15,000 AED (roughly $4,000). Those who fail to obtain or renew the license can face penalties including a fine of up to 5,000 AED, a verbal or official warning, and even closure of their social media accounts.

The rules apply to influencers visiting the UAE as well. They must either have a license or be signed up with an NMC-registered influencer agency to operate in the country.

With Saudi Arabia progressing in the entertainment and creative industries, the introduction of the license is viewed as a step in the right direction.

“It’s great news for the industry,” said Al-Mawed. “When someone is licensed by the government to offer their services, that gives them a level of safety and trust and can help filter out the scammers who prefer to fly under the radar.”

 

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Who’s Who: Hassan Al-Jeshi, CEO of an asset management firm Malaz Capital

Updated 11 August 2022

Who’s Who: Hassan Al-Jeshi, CEO of an asset management firm Malaz Capital

Hassan Al-Jeshi was appointed CEO of Malaz Capital in July this year.

Malaz Capital is an asset management firm operating under the regulations of the Capital Market Authority of Saudi Arabia.

The company obtained its CMA license in 2010, and is authorized to carry out asset management, dealing as principal and custody services in the Kingdom.

Prior to joining Malaz Capital, Al-Jeshi held several leadership positions in leading investment institutions and a group of national and international banks, including head of equity capital markets at Saudi National Bank Capital in 2021, the investment arm of SNB.

He worked at Samba Financial Group, holding two different positions including assistant general manager from 2017, and head of investment banking from 2020 at Samba Capital, the group’s investment arm.

From 2013-17, Al-Jeshi worked as group head of corporate finance at Alistithmar Capital, the investment arm of The Saudi Investment Bank.

In 2012, he worked in energy and infrastructure investment banking at Taylor-DeJongh, Washington, DC.

Al-Jeshi has extensive professional experience in the field of investment and capital markets locally, regionally, and internationally, where he has led through his positions multiple landmark and significant investment transactions.

At Samba he managed and oversaw the full cycle of investment banking deal-related activities, including deal origination, client management, building financial models, performing valuation, transaction structuring, and preparing to offer documents, reviewing transaction agreements and more.

During his early career, Al-Jeshi also worked as a business consultant to a number of small and medium enterprises at start-up and growth stages in areas related to preliminary feasibility study assessment, capital budgeting, valuation, and fundraising.

Al-Jeshi holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals which he received in 2005, and in 2013 he earned a master’s degree in finance from George Washington University in the US.

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Saudi envoy to UN in Geneva, UNHCR chief discuss stronger cooperation

Updated 11 August 2022

Saudi envoy to UN in Geneva, UNHCR chief discuss stronger cooperation

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Abdulmohsen Majed bin Khothaila, met with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Wednesday.

The pair reviewed a number of important issues and discussed ways to enhance cooperation with the agency.

Earlier, Khothaila met with the permanent representative of the Republic of Djibouti to the UN, Ambassador Kadra Ahmed Hassan.

During the meeting they discussed issues of common interest within the framework of international organizations.

 

 

 

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The write stuff: Interns graduate from third cohort of Arab News and Misk Foundation journalism training

Updated 09 August 2022

The write stuff: Interns graduate from third cohort of Arab News and Misk Foundation journalism training

  • Eight interns shortlisted by Arab News editors for the journalism internship program through the Misk foundation
  • Participants coached by Arab News’ team of experienced and award-winning senior editors and department heads

RIYADH: Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English-language daily, and the Misk Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers Saudi youth in bringing to life a three-week intensive internship program, partnered to provide a unique hands-on training and mentorship program for young Saudi graduates pursuing journalism.

“It was a pleasure welcoming some of the Kingdom’s most promising media practitioners of tomorrow, and working closely with the Misk Foundation on this important partnership and training program,” said Faisal J.Abbas, editor-in-chief of Arab News.

Eight interns were shortlisted by Arab News editors for the journalism internship program through the foundation.

“Misk Skills is thrilled to collaborate with Arab News to provide Saudi youth with a great time of change, challenge, and excitement,” said Ghadeer Hamati, a consultant at the Misk Foundation.

Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News editor-in-Chief, with the interns at the Arab News headquarters in Riyadh. (Photo/Abdulrahman Shalhoub)

Hanin Alblwi, an enrolled intern in the program and law graduate, highlighted her experience: “This internship paved the way for me to understand the journalism industry and how it works. I really love writing and I want to be a freelance writer.”

FASTFACT

Participants were personally coached by Arab News’ team of experienced and award-winning senior editors and department heads from the Arab News headquarters in Riyadh and its bureaus in Dubai, London, France and Pakistan.

She shared in the first week that she didn’t know how to create a story from a news idea. She explained how amazed she was at how easily she was able to compete for a story in the second week of the program.

“The next week I just wrote the news easily, when you know the principles you can easily take it and apply it,” she explained.

“I highly recommend this program to everyone who wants to be a journalist,” she said.

Participants were personally coached by Arab News’ team of experienced and award-winning senior editors and department heads from the Arab News headquarters in Riyadh and its bureaus in Dubai, London, France and Pakistan.

“This internship was a great opportunity for an aspiring writer who wants to learn about this growing field. My experience with Arab News allowed me to learn about journalism from very passionate journalists and leaders at Arab News,” said Amal Alshehry, an intern and a master’s degree holder in English language.

The interns were also able to sit down with the Arab News editor-in-chief to gain insight into the world of journalism.

“The meeting with the editor-in-chief was a life lesson for me. He has inspired us to work and succeed in journalism, and to find passion in whatever we choose to do in life,” said Alshehry.

“I encourage fresh graduates to join this internship because the community here is amazing. I have learned a lot from other colleagues and the instructors,” said Thekra Altamimi, another intern.

The enrolled interns also went on the ground and conducted interviews with attendees of the JAX Art Festival in Riyadh while being guided by some of the newspaper’s most seasoned reporters.

“With no exaggeration, it was one of the best experiences in my life. I enjoyed interviewing people and experiencing it all as a journalist,” said Altamimi.

The partnership was initially struck in 2019 with the first group of students entering the training program. The program was put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic, but picked right back up in 2021 through a virtual internship program. This year’s installment, the third cohort, was conducted in a hybrid format.

Interns learned about the methods of covering a wide range of topics from regional and global issues through some of the most experienced correspondents at Arab News across the business, lifestyle, politics, local and regional news desks.

“I learned the fundamentals and elements of journalism, and communication, teamwork, and how to write about daily things in our life but to see them from a different perspective,” said Mohammed Almarri, an intern.

Students gained a wider understanding of the basics of news writing, editing, media ethics, fact-checking and ways to strengthen their reporting skills through the power of observation and new story structures.

“I studied journalism and it’s my passion. I love to write and I am so happy to be a part of this program. I hope to pursue journalism as a career, it’s been my dream job forever,” said Alya Allam, an intern in the program.

The internship ran for three weeks through a hybrid teaching program of in-person and online courses. The internship began on July 17 and continued until Aug. 7 in the Arab News headquarters in Riyadh.


Saudi Arabia leads condemnations of Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque

Updated 08 August 2022

Saudi Arabia leads condemnations of Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque

  • Saudi Arabia calls on international community to end escalation, protect Palestinians
  • Israel's Gaza bombardment earlier this week killed over 40 Palestinians

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Sunday condemned Israeli settlers storming Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard, in what the Kingdom called a “serious violation of international law.”

In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the international community to end the escalation and provide the necessary protection for Palestinian civilians.

The Kingdom said the attack violated the sanctity of the holy sites in Jerusalem, which contributes to exacerbating tensions and prolonging violence, amid escalations in Gaza that killed over 40 Palestinians and injured scores more this week.

Jordan, the custodian of the site, urged Israel to respect the sanctity of the compound and to “halt measures aimed at altering the historical and legal status quo.”

In a statement published on Petra news agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates’ spokesperson Haitham Abu Alfoul stressed that running the affairs of the holy site was exclusively under the jurisdiction of Jordanian-run Waqf (endowments) and al-Aqsa Affairs Administration in Jerusalem.

Abu Alfoul described Israel’s actions as a “violation of the historical and legal status quo and international law” and said it is a disrespect to the authority of the administration.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it held the Israeli government fully and directly responsible for its ongoing aggression against Christian and Islamic holy sites, the foremost of which was Al-Aqsa, and for the danger posed to and repercussions for the entire region.

A statement issued by the Islamic Awqaf (affiliated with Jordan and in charge of the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and signed by other Islamic commissions in Jerusalem stated: “Barbarism, no matter how much, will not change the reality of the Islamic mosque.”

It said the Islamic bodies and authorities stress their adherence to and support for the guardianship of King Abdullah II over Al-Aqsa Mosque and all Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Qatar’s foreign ministry said the “provocative practices” are part of the attempts to alter the historical and legal status of Al-Aqsa Mosque, calling on the international community to halt Israel’s attempts to transform the ongoing conflict into a “religious war.”

The ministry said the provocative violations that coincide with the recent attacks on Gaza will lead to “a dangerous escalation of violence.”  

Kuwait condemned the Israeli actions as an attempt to change the historical and legal status of Al-Quds and its sanctities.

In a statement, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that the attacks would increase violence and tension and threaten the stability of the region. 

Kuwait also called on the international community to assume its responsibilities to curb these attacks, put an end to them and provide protection for the Palestinian people and their sanctities.

The Muslim World League also condemned the storming of the mosque, saying it was a serious violation of international resolutions and laws.

The League and its international councils, bodies and councils denounced the “dangerous escalation” that impacts on the sanctity of Islamic sites.

The chairman of the African Union commission also condemned Israeli “airstrike attacks” in the Gaza Strip as violence escalates in the troubled region.

“Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemns the continued airstrike attacks by Israel on Gaza,” an AU statement said.

The “targeting of civilians and the continued illegal occupation by Israeli security forces of the Occupied Territories, are in stark violation of international law, and complicate the search for a just and lasting solution,” the statement said.